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Grassroots Organising Points the way in Fight Against Rising Repression

This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which will be the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and scheduled to take place in Belgrade, April 8-12.
Lysa John is the secretary-general of CIVICUS, a global alliance of more than 7,000 activists and civil society organisations across 175 countries.

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 2 2019 (IPS) - “I never thought it would get so big and I think it is amazing.”

The words of a 16-year-old Swedish teenager who skipped school to protest outside her government’s inaction on climate change. Greta Thunberg is marvelling at how, in just a few short months, her solitary protests outside Sweden’s parliament, have inspired and united hundreds of thousands of young people and others across the globe into a powerful, growing grassroots movement for climate change action.

And growing.

Thunberg’s school climate strike has inspired more than 1,500 climate strike events in more than 100 countries across the globe, from Argentina to New Zealand.

Lysa John – Credit: CIVICUS

For those of us fighting what can often feel like a losing battle against a rising tide of rights repression, Thunberg’s words should offer a profoundly insightful message – a lightbulb moment – about the way forward for our struggle for a just, inclusive and sustainable world. About mobilizing for amazing results.

It is fair to say that the traditional civil society sector is at a crossroads. Public trust in and support for aid organisations and NGOs has faded, thanks in part to recent high-profile abuse scandals, dwindling resources and frustration with a lack of real structural societal change in spite of our efforts.

The old approaches of working with governments, who are failing to serve their people’s interests, for incremental change, is not working anymore.

This watershed moment for organized civil society comes amid a serious, global crisis in democracy. A staggering 7 billion people live in countries where fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not properly respected, according to The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civic freedoms worldwide.

In this environment, citizen action is increasingly being organized into grassroots, social movements – mass-based, non-hierarchical groupings driven by people power, that are starting to prove successful in the fight for human rights and social justice.

The global #MeToo gender rights movement and the March for Our Lives American gun reform movement led by high school students – both still growing campaigns – provide encouraging lessons for the Climate School Strike movement on the power of this dynamic approach to activism.

So, how does civil society engage social movements in a way to harness the power of dynamic, new ways to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges?

That’s a key question that more than 700 civil society leaders, activists and international organization representatives will be trying to answer when they meet for the global International Civil Society Week (ICSW) gathering in Belgrade next week, from April 8-12.

Hosted by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations in partnership with Civic Initiatives, a Serbian association of NGOs, the conference’s theme, “The Power of Togetherness”, explores how people and organisations around the world can, and are, working together to enable and defend spaces for civic action in a world where global transformations are reshaping how civil society functions.

In order to build stronger, more resilient and effective civil society we need to re-connect with citizens. Across the world, we are seeing the emergence of diverse civic movements aimed at calling out injustices or achieving improvements in governance in local and national contexts.

Many of these are spontaneous, self-organised expressions of change – led by ordinary people who feel strongly about universal values of justice, integrity and solidarity. For formal civil society organisations (CSOs), there could not be a better time to lean into and strengthen approaches to community leadership for ‘glo-cal’ change.

We have the passion and intellect to connect the action on the streets with the spaces where decisions must be taken; and to channel the local energies for change into strategies for long-term, globally-connected transformation.

At the International Civil Society Week (ICSW), a primary goal is for delegates to work together to understand and connect with people’s movements on the streets around the world, to build bridges that strengthen alliances and create solidarity and to identify steps to build and sustain collective impact.

On every continent, forces seek to undo the advances made in our societies and communities. But around the world, brave citizens continue to risk their lives to stand up against repression and persecution.

The ICSW is all the more significant this year as civil society leaders, activists and innovators are gathering in a country in which a growing social movement has been demonstrating some of these very goals.

For weeks now, there have been ongoing mass protests in the capital, Belgrade, calling for democratic reforms under the banner of a campaign known as “#OneinFiveMillion. The campaign is a live example of how civil society plays an instrumental role in fighting to protect and expand civic freedoms and democratic values in the Balkans and globally. The toppling of Macedonia’s government in 2017 by unprecedented civic action is another example of that fight back.

Serbian civil society played a crucial role in the country’s transition to democracy. But not all parts of the country’s society are equally protected, with gay-rights activists and women human rights defenders, in particular, targets of attacks and threats.

By hosting ICSW 2019 in Serbia, we will shine a spotlight on the region’s communities, help address their challenges and find ways to support them.

We will also examine the opportunities we have to forge new alliances and increase our collective impact by coming together to fight for common issues. Across the past year, we have civil society get better at transferring strategies and lessons for change across countries.

India’s legal win for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community has, for instance, boosted efforts to repeal discriminatory laws in other countries, including Costa Rica and Portugal. In Argentina, Kenya and Ireland, we saw ordinary people take action to defend and advance abortion rights.

Last, but not in the least, we will spend time reviewing the changes we need within civil society and the way we operate. We need greater accountability for our own actions and the way we engage those we are meant to serve and represent.

Revelations of scandals around sexual and other misconduct by NGO officials in recent years have done much to erode public trust in the integrity of our organisations and our mission. Urgent solutions – new ways of operating – will continue to be sought through our deliberations at the International Civil Society Week.

As in previous years, this week of dialogue will enable us to emerge stronger in our individual and collective inspirations for change. The ICSW is that much needed space for us to step back from the overwhelming urgency of ‘doing’ and spend time instead thinking deeply about questions of our relevance and legitimacy as a sector.

It will be a time for us to go beyond individual mandates and limitations, and work instead on developing pathways for our future relevance, including in relation to investments we need to make in order nurture the next generation of civic leaders.

This includes decisive and innovative ways to expand the tent of ‘civil society’ beyond traditional limits and enabling more people than ever before to share our values and speak out for the changes needed to ensure a just, inclusive and sustainable world.

Building a new generation of champions for social justice – in the way that Greta Thunberg has inspired millions of children and youth to take action for the climate – is the future we need to design together; our time in Belgrade offers us the opportunity to commit to doing this better and more actively together.

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